Written by Grove Collaborative

What’s the best natural hand soap? A guide to eco-friendly options.

Last Updated: October 20, 2020


These days, you’re probably washing your hands more frequently than you used to, but is your conventional or antibacterial soap all that it’s cut out to be? Learn the truth about your run-of-the-mill hand soap and why going natural may be better for your hands — and your health.

Here at Grove Collaborative, we’re big believers in the power of natural products — both for ourselves and for the planet. But we know making the switch can be daunting, especially if you’re accustomed to conventional products and are new to the world of natural, eco-friendly alternatives. That’s why we’ve created Beginner’s Guides to Natural. Each week, we’ll give you a primer on the ins and outs of transitioning to a natural version of a common household item, plus a few of our favorite brands for making the switch. Let’s get to swapping!

For decades, experts have implored us to wash our hands well and often to prevent the spread of disease. Research shows that people touch their face an average of 23 times each hour — 44 percent of the time coming into contact with a mucous membrane. Touching your face with your filthy, germy hands is one of the easiest ways to catch a whole host of viral and bacterial illnesses, including MRSA, influenza, colds — and coronavirus, which has brought preventive hand-washing to new heights.



Now, you might think you need the strongest possible antimicrobial soap to keep your hands germ-free, but that’s just not true. Regular soap — including natural soap — will get your hands just as clean as soaps containing biocides and pesticides. In fact, regular soap is superior to the big guns in most instances. Learn why that is, and find out what makes natural hand soap even better than the big-brand bar you grew up using.




The lowdown on hand soap

What is soap?

Soap is a combination of fats or oils, an alkali, and water. When these ingredients are combined in the right amounts, they turn into soap through a chemical process called saponification. The basic recipe for soap hasn’t changed since it was carved into a Babylonian clay tablet in 2200 BC.

What is the difference between hand soap and body soap?

Soap labeled “hand soap” often has stronger ingredients, since it’s meant to remove germs, grease, and dirt from hands. Body wash, by comparison, is generally milder than hand soap and gentler on the skin. Many conventional hand soaps are heavily scented, and those in liquid form come in a rainbow of colors, compared to most body washes, which are pearly white and only lightly scented. But these differences don’t matter much when it comes to germs — both hand soap and body wash will put the kibosh on nasty bugs.

How does hand soap kill germs?

Soap doesn’t actually kill viruses, since viruses aren’t alive. Some bacteria and viruses — including coronaviruses and influenza viruses — have lipid membranes that keep bacteria alive and allow viruses to infect cells. What soap does is cover every inch of your hands with its pin-shaped molecules, each of which has a water-loving head and an oil-and-fat-loving tail. When these molecules come into contact with germs, the oil-and-fat-loving tails wedge themselves into the germs’ lipid membranes and rip them apart, killing bacteria and deactivating viruses. The mortal remains of the germs are trapped in tiny soap bubbles called micelles, which are washed away when you rinse your hands.

Grove Tip

Moisturization is key

All that hand-washing can cause dry skin, which is more susceptible to tiny cracks that serve as an entry point for microorganisms looking to make you sick. Keep your hands moisturized between washings with a natural hydrating hand cream.

What is the healthiest hand soap?

There are numerous hand soap options available in store aisles and online, but not all of them are created equal — or are equally as safe on your hands and the environment. Here are your options, along with the pros and cons of each, including ingredients you should look out for.

Antibacterial hand soap

Antibacterial hand soaps (and hand sanitizers) have a variety of chemicals you won’t find in regular or natural hand soaps. The purpose of these chemicals, ostensibly, is to kill germs dead. And while they do kill bacteria with a fierce vengeance — including the good ones that benefit your skin and your health — they don’t deactivate viruses. Rather, it’s the soap itself that destroys the lipid membrane and disables the virus.


Some of the ingredients in antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers aren’t good for your skin, and with repeated exposure, they can do a number on your health, too. All three of these common antibacterial hand soap ingredients have also led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria:

Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical associated with a decrease in thyroid hormone levels, and it may have potential to cause skin cancer when it’s exposed to ultraviolet rays. Triclosan was banned in antibacterial soaps and body washes a couple of years ago, but it’s still commonly used in hand sanitizers and hand wipes.

Benzalkonium chloride

Benzalkonium chloride is a biocide chemical that is associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies. The Food and Drug Administration notes that it lacks evidence showing the safety and effectiveness of this chemical, but the organization is allowing manufacturers to study it for a year and submit their findings.

Benzethonium chloride

An antimicrobial agent, benzethonium chloride is linked to immune system damage, which can lead to severe allergic reactions or an impairment in the ability to fight disease and repair the body’s tissues. Like benzalkonium chloride, this chemical lacks evidence of its safety and effectiveness and is currently being studied to learn more.

Conventional hand soap

Regular hand soap doesn’t contain the questionable antimicrobial agents found in antibacterial hand soap, but it contains a long list of other ingredients that can cause health problems with frequent, repeated exposure. These ingredients include:

Fragrances

Synthetic fragrances contain scores of ingredients that aren’t required to be listed on a product label. These ingredients include phthalates, which are associated with hormone disruption and birth defects, and other ingredients linked to organ toxicity, allergies, and cancer.

Parabens

Parabens are a class of preservatives that mimic the behavior of estrogen in the body and are associated with developmental toxicity, cancer, and hormone disruption. Parabens are also toxic to the environment.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

Commonly used in hand soaps to increase foaming power, SLS is linked to hormone and reproductive problems as well as skin, lung, and eye irritation. It’s also associated with organ system toxicity.

Natural hand soap

Natural hand soap is made from ingredients that aren’t a risk to human health. They’re typically formulated with minerals and plant-based ingredients, including essential oils and plant extracts, and they exclude harsh sulfates, parabens, phthalates, synthetic dyes and fragrances, petroleum-based ingredients, and other harmful substances. Natural hand soaps are usually non-toxic, biodegradable, vegan, and eco-friendly, and they’re generally not tested on animals.


Natural hand soap — whether it’s made by your Aunt Mabel, purchased at the local farmer’s market, or found online here at Grove Collaborative — is exactly as effective as conventional hand soap when it comes to dismantling viruses and killing harmful bacteria. You can find natural hand soap in bar, liquid, or tablet form.

What is the best natural hand soap?

Natural bar hand soap

Bar hand soap lathers up in your hands, and rubbing the bar directly on your skin is very effective at dislodging and removing dirt and grease. Natural bar soap is typically less expensive than liquid hand soap, and its packaging is usually more eco-friendly. However, bar soap can harbor bacteria, and if it’s stored in a wet spot, it will turn mushy — make sure to pair with a soap saver.

Natural liquid hand soap

Liquid natural hand soap is easy to dispense, and it tends to keep the area around the sink tidier than bar soap does. Liquid hand soap often contains moisturizers to keep your skin hydrated, which is important when you’re washing your hands frequently. However, liquid hand soap generally comes in plastic bottles, which are unfriendly to the environment — unless you buy refill pouches.

Natural hand soap tablets or powder

Soap tablets and hand wash powders are more eco-friendly than liquid soap, since they’re usually packaged in paper or aluminum. You simply fill your reusable soap dispenser with water, drop in the tablet, and wait about a half hour for the tablet to dissolve. For hand wash powder, simply use the powder in place of traditional soap. Hand soap tablet refills require less postage and packaging than liquid refills, since they’re small, lightweight, and compact.

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How to wash your hands

Wet hands and apply soap

Wet your hands with clean, warm running water. Turn off the tap to conserve water, and apply the soap.

Lather and scrub

Work up a lather with the soap. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds — get the palms and backs of your hands, between the fingers, under the nails, and around the wrists.

Rinse

Rinse your hands thoroughly with clean, warm running water to wash away dirt, grease, and microbes.

Dry

Germs can be transferred more easily to and from your hands when they’re wet. Use a towel to completely dry your hands, or let them air dry before you touch anything.

Grove Tip

No soap? Opt for sanitizer

When you can’t wash your hands with good old, plain soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with an alcohol content between 60 and 95 percent will suffice until you can make it to the sink. Alcohol breaks down that protective lipid membrane on some bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses and influenza viruses. Alcohol-free hand sanitizers and those with lower concentrations of alcohol may not kill all types of germs and may only reduce the growth of microbes.


Looking for more cleaning how-tos and other sustainable swaps you can make at home? Grove has you covered with our buying and cleaning guides. And let us know how if you have any cleaning questions (or share your own tips using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you're ready to make the switch to natural hand soap, shop Grove Collaborative's hand soap selection for the natural products that make the job easy.

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